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'Fast Times at Ridgemont High' was a couple years ahead of my time, ending up on TV long before I could purchase tickets to R-rated movies. As such, while I have what feels like a lifelong nostalgic connection to the film after watching it countless times on TV, it's one of many R-rated movies of the era where I only saw the real version in the early '90s (an experience akin to movie déjà vu). Therefore, as we dive into this review, I think it'll be important to explore 'Fast Times' in how it works as a film, and also how well it stands up to its nearly thirty year old Icon status.
The story behind the creation of 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High' is almost as famous as the movie itself. Cameron Crowe (the eventual director of 'Say Anything', 'Singles', 'Elizabethtown', 'Vanilla Sky', 'Jerry MacGuire', and yes, 'Almost Famous') was a wunderkind reporter for Rolling Stone Magazine as a teenager. At 22, he went undercover at Clairemont High School in San Diego to detail the real lives of teenagers. The resulting book, 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story' was released in 1981, followed a year later by this film adaptation, which he also wrote.
Directed by Amy Heckerling ('Clueless'), 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High' is a year-in-the-life tapestry of 1980s adolescence, splitting its time between six different teenagers: Brad (Judge Reinhold) is a popular senior who doesn't know if he wants a girlfriend for his last year in high school. Brad's sister, Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is a freshmen looking to get more experienced in the complicated world of sexual relationships with young men. Counseling Stacy, we have the older Linda (Phoebe Cates) who allegedly knows more about "older men" than anyone. Paralleling the Stacy/Linda dynamic, there's also Mark Ratner (Brian Backer) and Mike Damone (Robert Romanus). Mark is your typical nerd and he has a crush on Stacy, but doesn't really know how to act on his feelings. Damone, the school's resident scalper, is there to offer advice and eventually reveal his inner douchebag. Jeff Spicolli (Sean Penn) rounds out our core characters as the flaky surfer-stoner who is simply trying to squeak by, the trouble, though, is that his history professor, Mr. Hand (a pitch perfect Ray Walston), doesn't give free passes.
On the surface, the story seems very simple and well worn: A bunch of horny young people live their lives trying to score with the opposite sex. And I suppose it is, but what makes this film special in the sex comedy genre is the way it deftly weaves its tone between broad comedy, the land of real (often brutal) consequences, and grounded drama. The 1980s styles, soundtrack, and film stock may date the film, but for my money, it still works very well and could almost be a modern period film about the era ("almost" because it lacks the cynicism and tongue-in-cheek tone that is usually reserved for films revisiting the Reagan years).
I was surprised, after so many years, to find myself invested in all these characters and by the honest humanity afforded nearly everyone. Also, it was fun to think about how the movie's structure is strikingly similar to the 'Harry Potter' films (you know, without the apocalyptic stakes and yearly failed attempts to murder the Chosen One), which are also set over the course of an entire school year. So, in terms of how 'Fast Times' works as a film, I'd say quite well. Above average for a genre that can devolve into raunch without consequences, or ignore the heart required to make audiences care for imperfect characters.
When factoring in nostalgia, the film will admittedly play better to those who saw 'Fast Times' as teenagers, or millennials like myself who grew up watching the edited version on TV. But I think the reason it plays so well to these demographics (and hopefully others) is the iconic nature of the film's characters and scenes. Phoebe Cates emerging from a backyard pool in a red bikini is as classic a cinema moment as blood pouring out of the elevator in 'The Shining' (and visually seared into the minds of many a formerly-young man). Or Sean Penn's Jeff Spicoli ordering pizza in class. Or his pot-driven daydream about being a professional surfer. These moments transcended the movie itself to become part of Pop Culture.
Ranked #87 of AFI's 100 Years…100 Laughs and #2 on Entertainment Weekly's 50 Best High School Movies, 'Fast Times' was a launching pad for the young actors we've already covered as well as stars like Forrest Whitaker, Anthony Edwards, Eric Stoltz, and Nicholas Cage. If there is a drinking game about spotting famous people in cameos or early roles, 'Fast Times' would cause every player to get a hangover.
In the end, I would say 'Fast Times' probably isn't for everyone. It's a time capsule of a long gone era that conjures nostalgic feelings of what it was like -- for me at least -– to watch the film back in the day. That being said, I found the film to be genuinely effective in terms of its comedy and honest dramatic moments (like losing one's virginity in a baseball dugout where someone spray painted "Disco Sucks"). I was pleased with the quality of this film more for what I had forgotten over the years than for what fond memories held true.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal has packaged 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High' on a single BD-50 disc (Region A) housed in a standard case. Popping the disc into your player takes viewers automatically to the main menu.
Universal debuts 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High' with a average 1080p 1.85:1 widescreen transfer that won't win any awards, but should satisfy fans.
I never saw the film on HD DVD, so I can't speak to specific improvements that may or may not exist. For a film of this age, with that notoriously flat 1980s film stock, 'Fast Times' suffers from no signs of digital noise reduction or edge enhancement. Further, black levels are nice and bright colors (neons of the mall, red costumes) really pop. Skins tones are generally even, but may have tilted a little red. The grain level is authentic, which gives the film that real "film look" on an HD display, but sometimes cannibalizes detail and perceived resolution. Speaking of which, depending on the shot, detail and texture are can be a real treat.
As the movie started, I was really surprised by how good it looked (opening title sequences tend to suffer more in older catalog titles because of the opticals required to create the titles -- 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' is a perfect example of a Blu-ray where the opening titles don't look as good as the rest of the film), but quality dropped in various spots. Night scenes, in particular, suffer from occasional lack of detail. Dust and other blemeshes come and go, as do a number of fine scratches (they show up in Mr. Hand's first scene). I also noticed an odd flickering within Mr. Hand's green chalkboard on the left side of my screen. High definition is notorious for highlighting production mistakes, and there are a number of out of focus shots here as well (If I remember correctly, one example of this is during the lunchroom scene where Linda teaches Stacy how to "eat carrots").
Overall, 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High' looks pretty damn good for its age and limited source materials, but it's not an award winning restoration. In other words, it's not a fantastic Blu-ray, but it's not the worst by a long shot.
Much like the video, the 5.1 DTS-HD MA audio track does its job, especially given the age, but isn't anything special.
This is essentially a slightly expanded stereo presentation, which is fine given the track's origins. Dialog is centered and even throughout. The 1980s pop music soundtrack, which feels a tad compressed on hollow, is the real star here, taking up the entire front sound stage and lightly spreading out into the rears which, otherwise, see almost no activity. Bass levels are adequate for the subject matter, though underwhelming during the movie's one stunt and one football sequence.
None of these complaints are to say I think the film's track should have been tampered with to compete with modern surround maelstroms. Not at all. But in terms of HD audio, 'Fast Times' falls into the Just OK category.
'Fast Times at Ridgemont High' comes to Blu-ray with three standard definition special features recycled from the earlier Collectors and Special Edition DVD releases. From what my research has told me, what's missing are a song-by-song menu of the film's music (which allowed you to jump to specific scenes in the movie by music) and a video map of Ridgemont High hangouts (which told viewers where the real locations were filmed to make the movie). There are some HD exclusives similar to what's been removed, and I'll outline them below.
Overall, 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High' was a lot of fun to revisit as a film that was a regular part of my childhood (in its edited form, at least). As it turns out, it's still a fun movie with iconic performances from a large cast of young actors, many of whom became movie and television stars. This Blu-ray is a mixed bag. There's nothing terrible about it, though there are flaws, but there's nothing fantastic about it either. For fans, pick it up at a comfortable price point. For those less familiar with the movie, or who haven't seen this in years, I would say give it a rent first.